I am a fighter for you and for things

Are you with me?

It is March of 2019, and already one quarter of all emails sent within the United States are from Kamala Harris asking you to let her be honest. There are some variations to this appeal. On March 11, the subject line from her campaign declared, “I will be honest.” The next day, it added, “FWD: I will be honest.” The next day, a more conversational “Hey - I am going to be honest with you” appeared. A foot extends off the bed, holding a shoe aloft by its tongue, dangling it on the end of a big toe and waiting for the moment these emails attain their final form and “Re: FWD: I will be honest” drops.

This measurement may not be scientific. I seem to remember more from weeks back, but I take delight in snapping a finger down on the delete button and dispatching spam emails before my brain has a chance to process any information past the minimum amount needed to determine that—thank God—I do not need to pay attention to this. Surely other appeals to honesty have been lost. The emails sent from “Kamala’s husband (Doug)” went unheeded. Doug, I am not sorry.

You can probably spot the downside to this framing. Maybe you remember a pre-teen day when a parent brought you up short after an “I’ll be honest...” preface by interrupting to ask, “Does this mean that you weren’t before?” It was a caution that stuck with you, and naturally Kamala Harris’s announcement that she is being truthful this time passively suggests something negative about the rest. 

Or at least it does rhetorically, in the same sense that an email subject ending with a dangling preposition makes you think of a debatable grammar rule but doesn’t make you think that the sender is an idiot. That Harris selectively invokes the importance of honesty doesn’t make her dishonest in any other respect, and reasonable adults understand this. The only people for whom this constitutes a “gotcha” are people who don’t already need one to discount or oppose Harris’s candidacy but like having receipts for stuff this cheap, or they're the sorts of Cillizzards who feed off grub-like gotcha content.

(It still sounds weird. Harris repeatedly asking to be honest echoes a tremendously physically talented and verbally constipated Canadian wrestler named Lance Storm who would come to the ring, glowering in a way that faintly resembled Henry Rollins, then grab the mic and begin, “If I could be serious for a moment...” The attempt to lean into his absence of charisma merely reinforced the dullness of his promos, and rather than driving the crowd into a frenzy of dislike, it signaled when everyone could rest up for a moment. Deliberately bringing the house down for a few minutes only works if someone whipped it up first, and dullness is a poor counterpoint to the absence of energy. Whether this is a lesson is up to you and probably depends on how seriously you take events within the squared circle. Either way, he disappeared from the WWE a few years later.)

Other subject lines ding off the ear. Through 2016, Democratic Party candidates continued to send out fundraising emails with subject lines that included terms like, “FINAL NOTICE.” What they effectively meant was that potential donors had just hours left to send a check in before a certain fundraising deadline. What they looked like, however, were emails from a collection agency, which is sadistic if you’re ostensibly from the party of and for poor people. If you’re a moderately unsuccessful journalist or just used to being paid like one and live in dread that every email from your bank is going to tell you that you've dipped below the minimum deposit for your account, subject lines like February 28's “A bit behind” make you break out in cold sweats. 

What these emails never do, but what would be nice to see them do, is explain how they wound up in your inbox in the first place. Sure, you know how it happened, at least implicitly. You made those donations to the ACLU during the Bush years and to Médicins Sans Frontières during Operation Cast Lead, and ever since then you've gotten a reliable weekly supply of what your family lovingly refers to as “your commie mail.” (Maybe I’m projecting.) Maybe you signed a petition. Donated through ActBlue. It happens.

There’s an opportunity, here, to turn the intrusiveness into instruction, at least for a party that has strong incentives to expand discussion about data privacy and consent—from the shortsighted dream of a genie-like Robert Mueller determining that Facebook elected Donald Trump, to the more fundamental long-term problem of targeted manipulation via hate speech, propaganda and conspiracy theory. A greeting that begins by explaining how your email was legally obtained and the important differences between that and illegal or unethical use of your personal information has the virtue of minimizing the intrusiveness, telling you something you don’t already know and giving you some sense of what can and should be done as a matter of policy. It takes a structure that sucks and that we’ve learned to live with and uses it as the starting point for describing a better way of doing things. It tells you that the candidate knows that he or she is operating a machine on you, and that neither of you enjoys it.

The downside is that centering the discussion on how you should have more ability to control who gains access to your information would also require putting optional “Unsubscribe” boxes up at the top of the email the same sort of big candy-red buttons that usually say “CHIP IN $50 NOW,” which defeats the purpose of mass mailers like this. They exist via the premise that you are too lazy to immediately unsubscribe, or that you feel a tinge of guilt at foreclosing another avenue to learn about a candidate and are likely to let them keep coming for a while. Ideally, somewhere between the first mailer and the last, you will sign another petition that will put you on another list, or you will opt to go to a rally in person, or you’ll kick in $25 for the hell of it. 

Giving you an easy out—even a button that unsubscribes you from all but one weekly update, or a countdown of emails that promises to cease if you don’t indicate further interest—only advances the idea that escaping this process should be easier, if not the default. The benefit and risk of stripping off the facade and explaining how these mailers work is that they make the candidate and his or her transactions with you more human when the only metric they’re actually worth is more money. If you’re begging for that and not for forgiveness, the last thing you want to do is ask for permission.

So it felt like something of a reprieve this morning to get an email from Kamala Harris titled, simply, "Beto O’Rourke," regarding his announcement that he is running for president. There was no dance with honesty or with a petition to continue in a frame on honesty or with a performative frankness about a mercenary interaction that stopped short of acknowledging what it actually is.

It didn't pop as much as the February 27 email with the preview text of “Team, Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,” but it sang in its own way. Yes, it immediately began talking about “[looking] forward to engaging in substantive debates,” asking for money and mentioning a deep love of this country, but on the substance of Beto O’Rourke and what must be done for America, it remained silent. Which seems fair, since he did as much himself: